Sleater-Kinney could be cashing in at this point. Or they could have called it quits. Either way, they have put out enough records and sold-out enough shows that they have the right to do what they want, when they want. So what do they choose to do? Change.
“We were on the road in 2003, opening up for Pearl Jam, and we figured that most of the audience wasn’t really there to see us. PJ and their fans are great, but it’s their show. So we just started exploring things on stage. Stretching songs out and taking them into places that we had never been to before musically,” Carrie Brownstein said.
The result: The Woods.
The record and the band sound bigger and better than they ever have before. The guitars are cranked and the drums explode. Throwing it on your CD player and hitting play almost feels like walking into a show at the Fillmore in the late ‘60s.
“To our fans, it’s going to sound like a natural evolution. We were opening up songs like ‘Dig Me Out’ on the last couple of tours, going into five to 10-minute improv-jams, so it’s not like we just all of a sudden changed our sound. But we did try and do some different things, to let the guitars work more and capture what was in our heads as a band,” she says.
Brownstein’s lead guitar-work shines through in particular on The Woods. Her tone is deep and fuzzed out and her solos bend and break.
“You know, I just saw ‘Grizzly Man,’ the Werner Herzog film. And that kind of represents what I have been feeling like lately. Just being alone, one woman in the woods, on my own,” she confides.
Brownstein says that for Sleater-Kinney to expand its sound they had to challenge each other as musicians.
“When we’re writing songs, we’re always picking things apart. It’s like we have this issue as a band, that we can never write a ‘simple’ song. We can’t just do verse-chorus-verse and be happy with it. And sometimes, when I’m watching another band on stage and they do it, I’m like, ‘why can’t we do that?’ But we just won’t let ourselves.”
And they don’t. Take a track like “Jumpers” from The Woods, for instance. The song goes through 10 different sections, each with a different feel and pace, before it comes to a close. Each chorus in the song is different, with backing vocals or extra percussion brought in to make each part of the song stand on its own.
But for all of the improvisation and experimentation that Sleater-Kinney is currently embracing in their sound, they are still, in the end, a great pop band. They continue to rely on vocals and lyrics to drive their ideas home. And this is what sets them apart from every other band that goes through a “transition period.” While their sound has evolved and become more chaotic, they still know how to underline their chaos with melody.
“We tried really hard with this record to create something new, for us. But we also had to remember what makes our songs work in the first place,” Brownstein said. “It was like, how do we make the songs different and new, yet also make them sound catchy? And it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of pushing and pulling. But in the end I think that we pulled it off.”
For Sleater-Kinney, the future is wide open. The Woods has been a critical smash. The band is currently trekking across Canada, once again opening for Pearl Jam. And following that tour they head out on a month-long headlining run of their own.
“We’re doing well. Sometimes it’s just about turning your weaknesses into strengths. And I think that right now, we’re doing that,” Brownstein said.